Parting the Waters

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Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.


Many college students enter Julian Bond’s classes at the University of Virginia with what he calls “the American civil rights narrative,” a narrow storyline that tends to consider the movement primarily through the lens of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement. Bond's prominence began in the 1960s as one of the founders of the Student Nonvoilent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the narrative Bond teaches is “much broader and richer and much deeper,” he says, adding that “there were many, many, many more people involved in the civil rights movement than Martin Luther King.”

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 is a biographical narrative that focuses on King, but encompasses civil rights activists and organizations and the socio-political context of the movement from the year of the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown v Board of Education to the assassination of President John Kennedy. Branch synthesizes the inception and development of a unique, southern grassroots movement that swept up protagonists, bystanders, policymakers—in short, the nation—in an expanding struggle. He presents the diversity of black communities, of organizations that gave rise to the civil rights movement and of those that came into being as the movement gained momentum.

Branch situates Martin Luther King as the leader and as the symbol for the civil rights movement between 1954 and 1963, a biographical timeline that begins with King’s tenure as minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and ends with the pivotal year of the March on Washington, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the Birmingham church bombing. As the focal point for Branch’s sweeping view of the inception of the civil rights movement, Branch considers “King’s life … the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.” (xii)

Arguably, many individuals might serve as metaphors for the postwar years, and in fact, for the civil rights movement—Rosa Parks, Medgar Evars, Robert Moses, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, the Freedom Riders, the nine students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock—all of whom are among the biographies of blacks and whites woven into the panorama of Parting the Waters. King, however, remains a consistent and charismatic figure, ideologically motivated, yet flawed; a leader, yet one who faced internal disagreement over philosophy and tactics from the church and within the civil rights movement from organizations such as SNCC and the NAACP.

Interestingly, King’s leadership role itself was often at the heart of internal controversy. SNCC workers, for example, cultivating a “mythology, borrowing from that of the early Christians…would focus upon the ‘organizer’ who cared nothing for comfort or recognition, who would meet rejection by cheerfully shaking the dust from his feet and moving on to another outpost.” This image stood in contradistinction to “the more regal leadership image of Martin Luther King…” (519) In fact, differences between King and SNCC activists demonstrated deeper conflicts among between value systems of communitarianism and individualism and perhaps between political idealism and pragmatism. Later, in the civil rights movements, these conflicts would deepen into a rift between non-violence and violence, between racial accommodation and black separatism.

Branch marks the Albany Movement in Georgia as a critical juncture in King’s leadership style. Until that point, “King always had entered popular movements more or less haphazardly.” (632) The Albany movement began as an effort to extend the scope of the Mississippi Freedom Rides. Over a six-week period, the movement initially organized by SNCC, grew from an protest resulting in the arrests of three students to an enormous demonstration during which 267 people first swelled the capacity of the 30-inmate jail and were then transported to prisons throughout the state. Marches and arrests continued. After much internal disagreement, SNCC organizers decided that King’s presence would convince official Albany that the demonstrations would continue indefinitely until the white establishment agreed to their conditions.

King came and was jailed with 400 other demonstrators; however, the confrontation ended ignominiously. Law enforcement officials compromised on prosecutions in order to thwart further civil disobedience; the federal government breathed a sigh of relief when intervention was contraindicated; King claimed that bus and rail terminals had been integrated; the Albany government denied any agreement. The Albany Movement exacerbated differences between SCLC and SNCC, between King and student leaders.

Although the Albany Movement continued, according to the New York Times, “King’s most exhaustive campaign had failed because of … skillful opposition, ‘internal rivalries’ among the Negroes, ‘tactical errors’ by the Negroes, and the growing unity of nostile whites.” (631) From then on, according to Branch, King recognized that he could not be a fireman anymore, that “…a movement even of the purest spirit cannot survive without victories. …pragmatism demanded that he design his own test. He needed advance planning, training, and mobilization…he needed control of a concentrated effort maximizing both his risk and his chances for spectacular success.” (632)

King serves as an anchor for an extraordinarily broad contextual narrative of critical events and those who participated in them. Just as Branch presents the dynamics of the civil rights movement, he depicts the struggle for civil rights policy within the Kennedy administration and the interaction between the two. Kennedy and individuals within his administration—both prior to election and during Kennedy’s time in office—provide the counternarrative to the unfolding of grassroots civil rights activism. The Kennedy narrative depicts the administration as politicians who hoped not to have to deflect attention from other political priorities in order to deal with civil rights. Despite the presence of dedicated advisors such as Harris Wofford, John Doar and Burke Marshall, the administration emerges as unprepared and unable to gauge the depth and impact of the movement when they were thrust into the fray.

Caught in a paradox, they flew by the seats of their pants, critically in need of the black vote as well as that of segregationist southerners to get elected, and moving in the crosshairs between black and white racial agendas after election. Often tentative, they authorized wiretaps on King, waffled on legislation and despite President Kennedy's compelling oratory in favor of racial equality, King considered his death a blessing for civil rights. "I am convinced that had he lived, there would have been continual delays and attempts to evade it at every point and water it down at every point," he told a student. With Kennedy's death, however, "legal segregation was doomed." (922)


Lee Ann Ghajar, Fall 2005

Parting the Waters is the 924-paged, first volume of a trilogy by Taylor Branch. Volume two, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 appeared in 1998. Volume three, Canaan’s Edge, appeared in 2006.

Early histories of the civil rights movement inevitably focused on the life of Martin Luther King; however, as historic inquiry broadened and deepened, and as the historic field itself increasingly moved into social history, examination of the civil rights movement broadened to include local studies and a focus on groups and their leaders other than King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In an early review of Parting the Waters, Richard King cites David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross (1986) and Adam Fairclough’s To Redeem the Soul of America (1987) as the most immediate biographic predecessors and as two works of comparable scope to Branch’s work. These earlier authors, according to the reviewer, minimized the iconic leadership of King, portraying him as a leader “made by the movement.” Branch calls his book narrative biographical history, and while his characterization of King as the postwar metaphor for America is, at best, highly subjective and too qualitative to fully substantiate, it seems clear that at least in these years of the civil rights movement, King's leadership role was as essential to the movement as it was controversial.

Not surprisingly, Branch’s sources are extensive and include newpapers, archival collections of civil rights organizations and individuals, the papers of Martin Luther King, oral histories, and FBI documents. Parting the Waters is highly readable. The length is daunting for most classroom assignments, but abbreviated selections allow the reader to place Martin Luther King within the broader context of the civil rights movement and the national socio-political response.

JSTOR reviews of Parting the Waters follow:

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63.Taylor Branch. Review author[s]: Richard H. King The Journal of American History, Vol. 77, No. 1. (Jun., 1990), pp. 267-268. Stable URL: [1]

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. Taylor Branch. Review author[s]: Clayborne Carson The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 56, No. 3. (Aug., 1990), pp. 562-564. Stable URL: [2]

--LeeannghajarFall 2005

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